As technology has progressed over time, the internet has had an increasingly critical role in education, communication, expression of ideas, advancement of movements, and so much more, aided by net neutrality in the United States of America. During the Obama administration, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) established a set of rules preventing high-speed Internet Service Providers (ISPs) from stopping or slowing access to specific websites and from charging customers extra for high-quality streaming and internet access. In simple terms, these rules define net neutrality. The current chairman of the FCC, Ajit Pai, recently announced a plan to repeal net neutrality in the United States. This proposal has sparked a major debate among telecom companies and internet giants. The absence of net neutrality, however, would not only have implications for these types of companies, but it would also have an immense impact on individuals, businesses, and the role of the internet in our world. The repeal of net neutrality has the potential to create a major injustice for three reasons. It could lead to situations in which the amount of internet and data available to a person is based on their ability to pay internet providers for streaming rights. Further, it will allow large companies to charge small businesses for a spot in the fast lane of internet service; due to this decreased accessibility and increased price tag on internet access, it would also limit the public’s ability to have a voice on the web. These problems already exist in many ways—countless Americans do not have access to the internet even with the regulations in place today—but the repeal of net neutrality is anything but a solution, and it has the potential to severely deepen these issues.
The first step in understanding how the absence of net neutrality would negatively affect our country is understanding what it means. Barack Obama clearly defines net neutrality and why he supports it in a podcast from June 6th, 2006. He explains that the internet is currently an open platform where the success of websites and internet services is controlled by consumer demand. While there are barriers to entry, they are low and equal for all internet users. Big telephone and cable companies, however, want to change this by creating high-speed lanes on the internet that can only be accessed through exclusive contractual agreements. Anyone without the ability to pay to be in this high-speed lane will be bumped down to the slow lanes. Obama then shares his opinion on the matter: “We can’t have a situation in which the corporate duopoly dictates the future of the internet and that’s why I’m supporting what is called net neutrality.”
Net neutrality is, simply, freedom and equality of internet access. It deals with the relationship between Internet Service Providers (Verizon, AT&T, etc.), the web, and internet users. Net neutrality means that ISPs are required to enable access to all web content, without speeding, slowing, or blocking service to certain websites or information (Marsden 4). The recent major debate surrounding net neutrality began in 2015 when the FCC passed rules protecting net neutrality and promoting the open internet. These rules treated broadband as an essential public utility. Large telecom companies fought against this broadband regulation, claiming that the rules limited both consumer choice and the ability for telecom companies to compete with large internet companies such as Google or Netflix. Many telecom companies argued that “the existing rules prevent them from offering customers a wider selection of services at higher and lower price points” (Kang). Joan Marsh, vice president of AT&T, responded to Ajit Pai’s proposal to repeal the existing rules by bringing up another argument in favor of the repeal. “This action will return broadband in the U.S. to a regulatory regime that emphasizes private investment and innovation over lumbering government intervention,” Marsh claims (Kang). In essence, these companies want the ability to control their services and to compete with internet giants. In a speech at the Newseum on April 26, 2017, Ajit Pai brought up another compelling point about the internet before government regulation: “Nothing about the Internet was broken in 2015… there wasn’t a rash of Internet service providers blocking customers from accessing the content, applications, or services of their choice” (Pai). Further, Pai explains that fast and slow lanes never existed, and that government regulation of the internet is not necessary. He also argues that government regulation is economically detrimental because it would reduce investment in broadband infrastructure. “It’s basic economics,” he said, “the more heavily you regulate something, the less of it you’re likely to get” (Pai). The reasoning behind the proposal to repeal net neutrality is sound, but unfortunately arguments in support of the repeal do not solve the problem of potential exploitation of power by ISPs and the social justice issues that could subsequently arise.
The opposing argument in support of net neutrality comes primarily from large internet companies who believe that the repeal of net neutrality would give ISPs far too much power. Supporters of net neutrality believe that regardless of how the internet was pre-2015, rules should still exist to prevent ISPs from putting certain websites at a disadvantage and favoring others by slowing access or charging customers more for access to certain sites. Erin Egan, a vice president at Facebook responded to Ajit Pai’s proposal: “We are disappointed that the proposal announced today by the F.C.C. fails to maintain the strong net neutrality protections that will ensure the Internet remains open for everyone” (Kang).
While the most prevalent debate surrounding net neutrality is, in many ways, a fight for power between Internet Service Providers and companies on the internet, the people who would actually be most negatively affected by the repeal of net neutrality are low-income individuals and families, an important issue that both sides of technocratic debate fail to address. The first point that helps to clarify these issues is that the internet plays an essential role in daily life. “People utilize the internet today for everything from applying for a job, for work, for health care, to access government services,” says activist Steven Renderos, the policy director of the Center for Media Justice. “The reality is that the way we interact with the technology today is more as a utility and not necessarily as an entertainment platform,” he explains (Ross-Brown 14). This is especially true in education. According to a Pew Research survey in 2013, nearly seventy-five percent of teachers require students to submit assignments online, and forty percent have students participate in online discussions (Rainie). Only eighteen percent, however, claim that all of their students have these necessary digital technologies in their homes. “More than half of teachers say digital technologies are widening the gap between the most successful and least successful students,” claims journalist Sam Ross-Brown (14). This statement is backed by a report from the FCC in 2015 revealing that students with a broadband connection at home have an eight percent higher chance of graduating from high school.
The internet plays a critical role in countless other aspects of life. For example, many job applications are digital, and companies have begun to only list job postings on the internet. Even when only the issue of education is taken into account, the repeal of net neutrality still creates a major injustice to low income families and individuals. Currently, anyone who has internet access in their home is paying for streaming services, but regardless of what quality streaming a household can afford, even if they can only pay the for the slowest possible streaming, they can still access the entire internet. Without net neutrality, internet service providers will be able to control access and streaming speed to individual websites. These providers could slow or completely block access to certain websites based on how much the consumers are paying. The idea is to create packages or options for consumers. This means that the cheapest streaming options will no longer include access to the entire internet. Depending on a family’s needs, they may have to pay extra fees in addition to streaming services. Therefore, many families may not be able to afford a package that fulfills their specific digital needs. Socioeconomic gaps have always been an issue, and the repeal of net neutrality will only deepen this divide.
Another injustice that could arise deals with the effect on small businesses. If ISPs take advantage of the power given to them by the repeal of net neutrality, internet service providers would be able to charge websites for streaming speed and access. This would promote competition on the web, but it is unhealthy since so many internet giants, such as Google and Amazon, exist. It would limit innovation of small businesses on a major scale. LIVE Online Math is one example of a business that is desperately advocating for the current net neutrality regulations to remain in place. LIVE Online Math is an online tutoring company created by middle school and high school math teacher John Bovey in 2008. His original mission was to give homeschooling families a convenient option for teaching math, and LIVE Online Math has grown over the years, benefitting students in countless ways. Homeschoolers, students needing a little extra help with math, and even adults can take video-based courses at their own pace, tune into live workshops, receive one-on-one tutoring, or take full live group courses from a teacher in a unique, interactive online classroom for a reasonable price. On the website, Bovey explains his philosophy on teaching mathematics: “Many people remember learning math as simply memorizing the rules and processes that were required to get the right answer. This is not what math should be about. Excellent math education allows students to truly learn concepts and understand why math works” (Bovey). I took a video-based pre-algebra course from John Bovey when I was homeschooled in sixth grade, and it instilled in me a passion for the inter-workings of mathematics, laying an extraordinarily solid foundation for my further pursuit of mathematics in high school and college. If not for LIVE Online Math’s student-centered philosophy and affordable rates, my family would not have been able to benefit from it, and I may not currently be pursuing a degree in applied mathematics.
LIVE Online Math recently sent out an e-mail to all of its customers, informing them about the net neutrality proposal and the effects it would have on the business. The e-mail explains that the FCC wants to allow large corporations to charge them a premium to have their content load in a timely fashion and that net neutrality is vital to LIVE Online Math. In general, small businesses cannot afford to pay whatever sort of upcharge multiple different ISPs will likely charge in order to have their websites load in a reasonable time. “Charging consumers more money for services is one solution here,” John Bovey writes, “but who wants that?” (Bovey). This e-mail went out to countless families just like mine who rely on LIVE Online Math as an essential tool in the education of their children. If these customers have to pay more for services so that the website can load in a reasonable time, some may not be able to afford to continue taking classes. LIVE Online Math as well as John Bovey and the teachers he has employed will suffer from the loss of customers who cannot afford to pay extra.
Small businesses will be negatively affected by the increasing costs of having a website and streaming in the fast lane, but they will also suffer from the inevitability of large-scale internet consolidation in the form of mergers and corporate buy-outs. In 2014, Comcast attempted to purchase Time Warner Cable, which would have resulted in only one option for high-speed internet for sixty-three percent of Americans. Luckily, this plan was terminated due to the net neutrality regulations put in place in 2015, but similar deals are expected to occur should net neutrality be repealed. Without net neutrality, huge internet companies like Comcast will only become larger as they obtain the ability to buy smaller companies that cannot afford to exist on their own any longer. Large companies may merge for the sake of consolidating their resources and gaining even more power on the internet. Sam Ross-Brown brings up an important and interesting example of why this is an issue in his article “Net Neutrality and the Fight for Social Justice,” observing that this amount of consolidation “[would eliminate] many of the smaller media outlets that report on the issues most relevant to low-income communities” (14). Back in 2012, before net neutrality regulations were put in place, the consolidation happening on the web “also pushed women and people of color out of media ownership. According to a 2012 FCC radio survey, blacks, Latinos, and women owned a much smaller share of TV and radio stations than they did even just a few years [before]” (Ross-Brown 14). This highlights the important idea that monopolization of the internet would not only jeopardize the innovation of small businesses, but it would also suppress the voices of the people that many of those small businesses represent.
If net neutrality is repealed, accessibility will be limited for low-income Americans, and small business and websites could dissipate due to major consolidation, allowing the voice of the internet to be framed by a small number of large corporations. This is such a tremendous problem because the internet has been an incredible platform for regular people to express their ideas, communicate, advance movements, and impact lives. An example of this is the impact of digital media on both Ferguson and Black Lives Matter. On August 9th, 2014, eighteen-year-old Michael Brown was shot six times and killed by a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri. Throughout the weeks and months following this event, protests and demonstrations about racial discrimination and police brutality began to occur, and the news coverage was extensive. However, attention from mainstream news sources, such as MSNBC and CNN, did not come until after many days of online activism and a million tweets with the hashtag Ferguson. Even after mainstream news sources began reporting, a majority of the digital attention surrounding Ferguson came from sources outside the corporate news system such as KARG Argus Radio’s I Am Michael Brown live stream, which gained over a million views in a few days and St. Louis Alderman Antonio French’s twitter feed. Steven Renderos explains that coverage like this “demonstrates the tremendous social power of a free and open media platform” (Ross-Brown). If net neutrality did not exist, it would be up to large telecoms to control what internet users could or could not see, and movements such as #BlackLivesMatter and #Ferguson may not have had such an expansive impact. These movements, rooted in digital media, were so impactful because individuals were able to make their voice heard. The internet should always be a place where people from all backgrounds and economic statuses can have a voice, and net neutrality has the potential to take those voices away.
The internet is not perfect now, nor will it ever be. There will always be people throughout our country who cannot afford access to the web no matter the cost. Small businesses that falter, and other voices will always struggle to be heard. This is the nature of our society. Our obligation as citizens of America, however, is to do everything in our power to change this upsetting injustice in our country and in our world. Alone, the repeal of net neutrality will not create these major problems. The net neutrality regulations we have now will not solve them entirely. The recent proposal to repeal net neutrality will only deepen these issues. The debate over net neutrality may seem like a confusing, technocratic issue relating only to Internet Service Providers and large companies, but this debate involves every individual. We need to fight for the low-income students who, without internet access at home, could fall behind in school, for the small businesses that could cease to exist, and for each and every voice that would no longer be heard on the web because of a few giant ISPs and some unnecessary fees.
Bonilla, Yarimar and Jonathan Rosa. 2015. “#Ferguson: Digital Protest, Hashtag Ethnography, and the Racial Politics of Social Media in the United States,” American Ethnologist, Vol. 42, no. 1: 4-17.
Bovey, John. “LIVE Online Math: About.” Banner Image, 2011.
Bovey, John. “Please Help Save the Internet!.” Message to Erin O’Rourk. 30 Nov. 2017. E-mail.
Kang, Cecilia. “F.C.C. Plans Net Neutrality Repeal in a Victory for Telecoms.” The New York Times, 21 Nov. 2017.
Mariani, Stephanie. “Universal Internet Access as a Tool to Fight Poverty: The FCC’s Lifeline Program.” Georgetown Journal on Poverty Law & Policy, no. 3, 2016: 551.
Marsden, Christopher T. “Net Neutrality as a Debate about More than Economics.” Net Neutrality: Towards a Co-regulatory Solution. London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2010: 1– 28. Bloomsbury Collections. Web. 23 Nov. 2017.
Obama, Barack. “Network Neutrality.” Audio blog post. 8 June 2006.
Pai, Ajit. “Remarks of FCC Chairman Ajit Pai at The Newseum; The Future of Internet Freedom.” 26 Apr. 2017, Washington DC.
Rainie, Lee. “Digital Divides 2015.” Pew Research Center: Internet, Science & Tech, 22 Sept. 2015.
Ross-Brown, Sam. “Net Neutrality and the Fight for Social Justice:” Tikkun, vol. 30, no. 3, 1 July 2015: 13–14.